Two of the world's most seriously taken choreographers are Americans working in Germany for the last thirty years, one in Frankfurt and one in Hamburg. Both perform at Brooklyn Academy of Music this month with American premieres.
William Forsythe directed Ballett Frankfurt from 1984 to 2004 when it folded due to subsidy cuts by the city of Frankfurt government. The city fathers complained the ballet was not programming 19th Century story ballets. They feared the choreographer who had raised its former opera ballet to unprecedented glory as a contemporary ballet company, was going too far into the 21st Century.
Worldwide, it was considered a moronic move by the Frankfurters, who failed to see the tourism draw the company provided. Even Fodor's listed the ballet as a reason to go to Frankfurt. His artistic freedom threatened, Forsythe put up very little fight. Turning his heels on them, he founded a newer, sleeker company, The Forsythe Company, down from 34 to 18. Almost all are former Ballet Frankfurt dancers, a superb group who otherwise would have had to go into a sort of dance Diaspora. Still, it must hurt to have left so many behind.
Forsythe didn't leave himself much time to play catch-up. Relishing the snub as an opportunity for change, he secured funding from the city of Dresden and the state governments of Hesse and Saxony for the new company which is more portable, more "to go." In Germany, the company performs now in Festspielhaus Hellerau in Dresden and its new Frankfurt home, The Brockenheimer Depot.
Meanwhile, the Hamburghermeisters have stood steadfastly by John Neumeier, a Wisconsin native of Polish descent, who has led Hamburg's ballet since 1973.
Under him, its ballet has been equally acclaimed as Forsythe's for many of the same as well as different reasons. Assertive and austere are words that could describe both choreographers and their works. Neither takes any prisoners when it comes to their artistic freedom and both have made works so wincingly spare they evince a wide band of critical responses.
However, each has turned the company he directs from their classical bun-head orientations, to contemporary companies on a roll. And the level of dancing in both is at the pinnacle of world standards.
Neumeier who received the 2006 Nijinsky award for Lifetime Achievement in Monaco last December, created a powerful biographical and psychological work on Nijinsky a few years back. He brilliantly cast a set of twins to portray Nijinsky's bi-sexuality. Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann's novel, is the evening length work he brings to BAM. In it, he further explores ambivalent and overt homosexuality.
Although the opening scene appears to be in an art gallery, one of those precious sorts with only one painting on display, Neumeier's Aschenbach (Mann's main character) is a choreographer who eventually takes himself off to Venice. There he attempts to shake out of his rigid habits. Falling hopelessly in love with Tadeusz, an exquisitely beautiful aristocratic lad on holiday with his Polish family, helps. In fact, for Aschenbach, it causes a total collapse of judgment and propriety as he stalks the boy on the beach and through Venice's alleyways.
In the film version, Visconti used the Third and Fifth symphonies of Mann's contemporary, Gustav Mahler, an equally conflicted artist, if not about his sexuality, at least his beliefs. Neumeier uses Bach and Wagner, with an onstage pianistic paean to Mahler as a bridge. On a larger scale, this arc through German musical history marks the beginning of the end of Germany's 200-year musical supremacy and the end of the era of empire and aristocracies.
Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet comes to BAM February 7 – 10 and, later, almost simultaneously with Forsythe, in California at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
The Forsythe Company also makes only two stops in the U.S. this year, at Brooklyn Academy of Music at the end of February and just before that at U.C. Berkeley. At BAM, the company will perform his Three Atmospheric Studies an adventurous and cataclysmic dance/theater triptych through which he explores his abhorrence of war.
It is interesting to speculate whether either of these dance giants would have reached such stature had they stayed at home in the U.S. Likely, they would have vied for funding and media attention with other American talents and visionaries like Merce Cunningham. They might have been stunted in the shadow of Balanchine, under which so many American balletomanes still obsessively quiver with delight and who demand their ballet company program a run of his work each year.
Neumeier's choreography looks ballet-based, but its no-nonsense, unembellished phrasing makes it cool-headed and more futuristic looking than contemporary. For Death in Venice, at least, this is a laser-sharp way of heightening Aschenbach's essential loneliness and fatal longing.
Forsythe's work, while modern in movement styles like contact-improv, allows for emotion. His dancers express passion, fear, anger and tenderness. So far, some critics have remarked that Three Atmospheric Studiesis more theater than dance, but all seem to agree that as a work of art it is provocative.
However these works are received in the U.S., the German cities which gave us our two favorite all-American sandwiches are giving back two of our greatest exports, if only for the month. These American-born artists enjoy their support and confidence. How good it would be if our own country saw how moronic it is to spend on war instead of art.